I've been interested in Heavy Rain since I first saw the audition demo back when the PS3 was first shown at E3. The realistic detail in the characters was astounding, and it looked like it was truly pushing the envelope of what a "realistic videogame" might mean. Zoom forward to the present, and Heavy Rain is now a "dark thriller in the vein of SE7EN." When I got the opportunity to sit in on a Heavy Rain "breakout session," I was all over it, whatever "breakout session" meant.
As it turned out, the breakout session was a presentation where two of the developers of Heavy Rain did a gameplay walkthrough of two different scenes from the game. Loading screens feature a very detailed and realistic closeup on the face of the character you're going to control in the upcoming scene.
The first scene was called, "Mad Jack Scene" and features a character named Norman Jayden, an FBI agent who looked a little bit like Mulder from the X-Files, but who acted more reserved and even a bit timid and unsure of himself.
The gameplay seemed to be heavily "action sequence" a la God of War, but with a twist; even when there wasn't a "timed event" going on, these same action button - associated actions are made available, acting as a context-based action system overlayed over the environment. That's a bit hard to try to describe, but when you see it in action, it makes more sense. One of the features is the "thought" system, which shows you up to four thoughts (associated with the four action buttons) that your character is thinking about, as text and associated button labels orbiting around your character's head, when you press L2. Selecting one of these thoughts causes your character to react to that thought, either vocally or with an action. As the action heats up and your character gets nervous, however, these actions move faster and more chaotically and are harder to read, simulating it being more difficult to think.
The dialogue system works the same way as the thought system, except that you don't have to press L2, since dialogues are "prompted" events.
Movement is handled a bit awkwardly; you use the left stick to control where your character's head is facing and then hold R2 to walk forward in that direction, regardless of your character's physical orientation. This means that your directional control isn't dependent on where the camera is located. This was done to allow more cinematic camera control by the game.
Another interesting feature of the game when you play as Norman Jayden is his "ARI" or "Added Reality Interface," which creates an overlay over the screen in a heads-up display sort of way and shows traces of DNA, fingerprints, pheromones, etc... all when he initiates a scanner on his glasses. Touch something you've found with his glove and ARI analyzes the substances. As they explained in the demonstration, this is the only "sci-fi" element of the game and it isn't necessarily years and years off... it's just sort of a natural progression from what criminal investigators have to work with today, made portable to move the game along without having you wait for hours for lab results.
Heavy Rain has no typical "Game Over" moments, where you have to start over again from some earlier point. Instead, when a character dies, the game continues, but from the point of a different character. Sidestepping the "Game Over" situation is intended to keep the game interesting and prevent it from being repetitive. In the demonstration, we got to see Jayden's story and subsequent fight right up to the very end, but then they intentionally killed off Jayden to show what a failure looks like.
After this, they picked up the story in a different scene, called "Madison (Page) at the Blue Lagoon." Madison Page is not a professional investigator, or a policeman... she's simply a photo journalist. We are told that she has some interesting quirks; for example, she can only sleep when she's in a hotel. While at a hotel, she got a tip on some murders she had been investigating that traced back to Paco Mendez, the owner of a techno club named The Blue Lagoon. Madison Page is sort of a "Lois Lane" type investigative photo journalist and is a bit dowdy in appearance, which makes her seem a bit out-of-place at the club, surrounded by hot, scantily clad women. When in the club, Madison moves through the crowd, turning sideways and sidestepping like you would if you were moving through a crowded room. (This is a nice touch.)
When Madison finds Mendez, he is in the private VIP section of his club, watching the girls dance. She attempts to talk to him, but can't get by his bodyguard. When she sees another girl do a sexy dance on a nearby stage and get invited back to party with Paco, she determines that she has to try to get his attention by dancing on that stage. This leads to trying a dancing game on a small stage, which works by the same mechanic as the thought process... an action based sequence that controls different turns and gyrations. Ultimately, she ends up faltering on her high heels and the dance doesn't quite work, so she goes to the ladies' room to adjust her appearance a bit. This takes you into a sort of mini-game that works by the same action button and analog stick sort of mechanic, but has you applying makeup, undoing a button on her blouse, and even ripping her skirt in half to make it shorter.
This time, the dance works better, and an interesting split screen effect is used in the game to show your effect on Paco as you dance, letting you know if it's working or if you're "losing him." According to the developers, this sort of split screen effect is used in various places to show your effect on your environment, when someone is looking at you, or similar things, when appropriate.
After she gets into the VIP area, she suggests they go somewhere more private. She has a gun and intends to get her information and get out. However, when she arrives in the room and Paco takes her purse from her, throws it off to the side and directs her to dance for him, her plan is shot to hell. She thinks, "I'm a brave girl... don't worry," but we can see that she is stressed about the situation, because her stress makes the words indicating her "thought options" blurry.
I found the next "mini-game" sequence to be a bit disturbing. You have to control Madison as she is desperately trying to find a way out of her predicament, all the while being forced to strip for Paco Mendez at gunpoint. I have nothing against stripping, necessarily, given the appropriate rating, but even in the allegations of being able to "rape prostitutes and then kill them to steal your money back" in a GTA game, it wasn't at gunpoint. In this mini-game, you have to try to select a thought that gets you out of this mess, and after a couple of poor choices, you are forced to choose something to remove. First go 'round, it was her top. The next time, we had a choice of her bra or her skirt. The developer running the show chose to remove the skirt, leaving our heroine in bra and panties. I assume that, if they had gone the other way, something would have actually shown. I can't verify that, as they didn't show the other option.
Eventually, she thinks of knocking him out with something nearby and, after taping him securely to a chair, she retrieves her gun and begins her interrogation. Now, it's Paco's turn to be forced to do something at gunpoint... and when he decides she doesn't have the balls to shoot him, she "borrows his." She tortures him into talking by grabbing his balls and twisting. This isn't shown in an overtly graphic manner (well, his testicles remain in his pants, at least), but it was rather unnerving that you're actually given multiple options via the action sequence for torturing his balls. You can grab the left stick and twirl it this way to twist them to the left... or press this button to squeeze them tighter. Is this something we really want people to develop techniques for? Eventually, a guard comes to check on them and Madison fakes out a guard by making heavy sex and orgasm sounds. She manages to fake the guard out and leave poor Paco dumbfounded and, luckily, speechless. For our demonstration, Madison made it to her successful conclusion, but the game froze at the very end of that section. Actually, for a presentation demo, it did pretty well. The developers were quick to point out that, currently, everything is just past Alpha stage - at about 75% completion.
One unique aspect of Heavy Rain is that even in the case of all of the characters dying, the story will finish and there will be closure to the story. From an academic standpoint, this may challenge whether Heavy Rain technically is a game, at all. If so, then this title may redefine what video games are.
Currently, Heavy Rain is not yet rated. The actions of Madison make me wonder what rating might be determined, however... it definitely has violence and adult themes, but a lot seems to be implied, rather than graphic.
There are two additional scenes to be revealed in the near future. One will be revealed at the Games Convention in Cologne, and the next is to be revealed at the Tokyo Game Show.
This presentation was very informative, as you can see, but I hoped that I would get a chance to actually play some on the show floor. That turned out to be a bit of an adventure of its own and, in the end, I got just enough hands-on time with Heavy Rain to be able to report with a fair amount of certainty that Sony really didn't want anyone actually playing (at least Madison's scene of) Heavy Rain at E3 this year.